Having a cocktail may seem like a harmless way to relax at the end of a hard day or week. However, these alcoholic concoctions can have considerable costs to the environment during the alcohol production process—the sourcing and agricultural production of crops needed to make the alcohol; resources used and waste generated during the fermentation and distillation processes; length of maturation; product transportation; and the lifecycle of the packaging—and when being mixed, shaken, or stirred into the perfect drink at the bar. Now many spirits companies and bar tenders are doing their part to reduce their environmental impact.
In 2014, more than 54.5 billion kilograms (120 billion pounds) of agricultural crops were grown and used for alcohol production; the type of crop—corn, barley, rye, wheat, and others--and the farming method--sustainable versus conventional—will, therefore, play a large role in the environmental impact of the spirit. The distillation process itself is the number one contributor to a spirit’s carbon footprint, according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable’s (BIER) Research on the Carbon Footprint of Spirits. It requires substantial amounts of raw materials, including water, as well as extremely high levels of energy for the heating to purify the alcohol. Furthermore, agricultural raw materials are mashed to a pulp, and much of this mash ends up as a waste product at the end of the distillation process. Finally, packaging materials and transportation of products can have a significant effect on the sustainability and environmental impact of the spirit.
When it comes to reducing environmental impact, spirits makers are taking many different approaches.
In Mexico, 4 Copas Tequila uses only organic crops, does not use any chemicals during the tequila production process, and makes its bottles from glass that is handblown by local Jalisco artisans.
Crop Vodka sources only U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic crops that are then distilled using an efficient process that requires no carbon treatment or charcoal filtering.
DonQ Rum has developed uses for the byproducts of distillation. Wastewater is treated and transformed into irrigation grade water. Solid waste is composted and converted to fertilizer mulch. Carbon dioxide released during fermentation is captured and used to produce local sodas. Biogas is used to create steam, which is then used power for their processing plant.
Greenbar Craft Distillery offers the largest portfolio of organic, hand-crafted spirits, including Bar Keep Organic Bitters, Crusoe Organic Silver Rum, IXÁ Organic Tequila, and TRU Organic Vodka and Gin. Greenbar Craft Distillery products also use lightweight bottles and 100 percent recycled labels, and the company plants a tree for every bottle sold.
Maker’s Mark Whiskey has implemented state-of-the-art waste management and recycling practices. An anaerobic digestion facility converts stillage to energy that the distillery uses to offset its natural gas use.
Square One Organic Spirits uses USDA certified organic crops and purchases a fraction of its energy from a local wind farm using renewable energy credits.
VeeV is a certified carbon neutral producer, uses a wind-powered distillery, and donates USD$1 to rainforest preservation and sustainable açaí farming for every bottle sold.
In addition to choosing ‘green’ liquors, bartenders and bar owners are finding other inventive ways to be more eco-friendly and reduce waste. Growing and buying local ingredients for mixing and garnishes, composting waste, using glassware instead of disposable cups, recycling empty liquor bottles, and using natural cleaning products—such as vinegar—instead of traditional chemical ones are a few ways to make cocktails and bars more sustainable.
Ryan Chetiyawardan’s White Lyan in London turned out to be a low-waste bar almost by accident. The initial premise of no ice or perishables, house-distilled spirits, and completely pre-bottled cocktails was thought up simply to the improve the control of the flavor of the cocktails, and ended up having a much more significant impact: the only waste Chetiyawardana was producing was the 24 bottles he would recycle each week. When opening his second bar, Dandelyan at the Mondrian Hotel in London, Chetiyawardana was even more conscientious about creating cocktails that produced minimal waste.
Scott and Niki Kobrick recently opened Kobrick Coffee Bar in New York City, serving coffee by day and alcohol by night. The owners converted the rooftop of their coffee roasting plant in Jersey City, NJ, into a garden that now grows many of the ingredients they feature in their cocktails, including mint, basil, cilantro, parsley, and tomatoes. So far, the garden has proven to be a success. “After testing our rooftop garden last year, the tomatoes were some of the best we ever tasted. The sunshine is amazing up there, and there are hardly any bugs, so there’s no need for pesticides,” said co-owner Niki Kobrick. They’re also focusing on reducing their food waste. Pureeing unused tomatoes into tomato juice for Bloody Marys is one way the establishment repurposes unused ingredients from the food menu. Additionally, several of their cocktails feature their direct trade, sustainably-sourced Costa Rican coffee.
Alan Walter, also known as the Spirit Handler, leads the bar Loa in New Orleans and has a sustainable focus when creating his cocktails. Walter uses fresh, local ingredients—some of which he forages—and his cocktail menus follow the seasonality of ingredients. Dozens of the syrups, tinctures, and aromatic bitters he uses are made on-site, and he serves his drinks out of his own collection of vintage glasses.
As more spirit producers, bar owners, and mixologists opt for more environmentally friendly business practices, the sustainability of the spirits industry will continue to shift. All of the changes made by the field’s professionals, both large and small, will have a cumulative effect that will result in the realization of substantial environmental benefits.